When you want to know what good music is, you need look no further than Monsoon’s newest album, Mandala. This seven-piece group (Jonathan Kay: tenor and soprano sax, bansuri, esraj, flute/alto flute, clarinet, tanpura, swarmandal; Andrew Kay: alto and soprano sax, bass clarinet, Tibetan singing bowls, whistles and ocarina, hand percussion; Justin Gray: six-string electric bass, double bass, bass veena, sitar guitar; Ravi Naimpally: tabla, udu; Adam Teixeira: drum set and cymbals; Todd Pentney: Fender Rhodes, piano, Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer; Derek Gray: drum set and cymbals, hand percussion, batá, Tibetan singing bowls, kashakas, ocean drum) recently performed at Toronto’s Glenn Gould studio to celebrate the release of Mandala, which was made by crowdfunding through Kickstarter. And the only question surrounding this band is the debate over whether their music is great and soothing for the soul, or great and soothing for the mind.
A bit of background on the group and their style of music is needed to really understand their depth. Their music is heavily influenced by Indian sounds, rhythms and instruments, with a heavy dose of jazz thrown in for good measure. The tempos range from laidback to as busy as a midmorning marketplace and when you least expect it, a shimmering sound worms its way in to add a bit of sparkle before gracefully fading away. There may be “only” nine songs on Mandala, but they cover the full spectrum of emotions, moods and atmospheres, and Monsoon dipped into a bit of everything at their CD release performance.
Personally speaking, “Python’s Tendency” is their most energetic, infectious tune. It’s four minutes and 14 seconds of a deceptively simple melody and rhythm with instruments coming and going, breaking to wander off into transient thought before returning to the main melody. The additions of instruments and relatively easy melody to follow brings to mind Ravel’s “Bolero”, making it the perfect musical representation of the group. For beginners, it’s an excellent gateway into Monsoon’s sound; for listeners more experienced with their sound, the rise and dip of the melodies and harmonies sums up their musical journey.
“Western Sunrise” is the kind of song you put on no matter what your mood, whether you’re stressed after a long day, trying to calm busy thoughts, go on a mini mental vacation to destinations sunnier and warmer than Toronto or wanting some background music for a cocktail party. As each instrument overlaps with one another, the flute standing above the rest in a subtle, non-ostentatious way, you can almost see high energy and stress levels metering down. About two-thirds of the way through, a guitar enters and is softly picked up and down the scale, taking over from the flute while the rest of the instruments quiet down to mirror the sun’s splashes or reds and oranges lifting over the horizon.
For a walk on the slightly wilder side, putting on “Tiger Eyes” will do the trick. It starts off with a complex drum solo of varying rolls, rhythms and taps, soon joined by the bass. With a length of 3:14, it’s the second-shortest song on Mandala but by no means the simplest. It only takes about a minute and a half for the instruments to play such varying melodies, it seems like several songs are going on at the same time. Parts of it sound asynchronous and a bit rough on the ears when the chorded harmonies don’t match up, but it can also be viewed as a testament to Monsoon’s unwillingness to play by traditional musical rules and simply do things their own.
It all adds up to music that’s complex, sophisticated and requires a keen listening ear, with the seven multi-instrumentalists displaying an astounding ability to mingle their sounds without losing track of the end goal. And it’s also not easy music to listen to at all, but good music should require effort and dedication. Far too often, songs are released with a simplicity and lack of direction that would make it possible for a three-year-old to pick it up, but that’s never the case with Monsoon’s Mandala.
And is it music for the mind or soul? Both. The beauty of this album is it can speak to either depending on your needs and state of mind.